‘Some scientist’ once proved that bees can’t fly…?

Today, at the cinema, The Ranger learnt in the opening credits of Bee Movie that:

According to all the laws of aviation it is impossible for a bee to fly…

It was a really funny film – recommended. But that opening sequence got the Ranger thinking. This is another of those scientist-bashing stories, you see. Stupid scientists get it wrong. How daft are they? Obviously bees can fly. So why do scientists persist with this patent untruth?

Publicity shot from Bee Movie © DreamWorks Distribution LLC

Actually, they don’t, and never really did. A few years ago, Boeing engineer John McMasters looked into the origins of this tale, and published an article in Scientific American (McMasters, J. H. 1989. The flight of the bumblebee and related myths of entomological engineering. Am. Sci. 77: 164″169.). He found the tale was circulating in German technical universities back in the early 1930s, in the infancy of true aerodynamic science. Further enquiries by others revealed that some observations about bumblebee flight were published in 1934 by the entomologist Antoine Magnan, who discussed a mathematical equation by André Sainte-Laguë, a mathematician. This informal work compared a bee to an aeroplane of similar size, and was based on the assumption that bees wings were more-or-less smooth, flat plates. The resulting calculations not surprisingly ‘proved’ the bee to be incapable of flight. But, of course, and crucially, bees’ wings are far from flat. As McMasters said in 1989:

The assumptions were almost wildly wrong, and the [scientist] himself later discovered part of his error by examining a bee’s wing under a microscope — but not, alas, before the myth was born in the hands of overeager journalists.

So the tale went from novelty to received wisdom overnight, and has been used to chastise scientists ever since – despite the subsequent scientific rigour of the original authors and many others having corrected their work. But does it matter? It’s a good dinner-table story, and if it raises a chuckle, so what? In fact, it does matter, because misinformation like this gives science in general a bad name, and there are plenty of people who are not reluctant to assist it. Former US presidential candidate, the ironically-named Mike Huckabee, for one, who has publicly asserted it as fact. He’s also a chap who espouses the teaching of intelligent design in schools. Really, we shouldn’t be giving this kind of argument any more ammunition than is absolutely necessary. So if the bee question is ever raised let us be proud to proclaim that bees can fly, and what’s more, we can prove it!

3 thoughts on “‘Some scientist’ once proved that bees can’t fly…?”

  1. As per Wikipedia: Another description of a bee’s wing function is that the wings work similarly to helicopter blades, “reverse-pitch semirotary helicopter blades”.

  2. That is very interesting. My personal take is that the statement proves (!) the fallibility of science not of scientists, and illustrates this point beautifully. The fact that it is unsound in origin simply adds once again to the fallibility of science. Most if not all scientists worth their salt know of the many pitfalls that beset research. How much of anything can be proved and how much can subsequently be proven wrong? Probably most of it if you look and research in the right way.

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